Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen
Aging rancher John Chisum (John Wayne) finds himself going up against corrupt land developer Lawrence Murphy (Forrest Tucker) as Murphy attempts to seize control of Lincoln County for his own personal gain.
Chisum is (extremely) loosely based on the events and people involved in the Lincoln County War of 1878 which happened in the New Mexico Territory. Those involved included John Chisum (1824-1884), Pat Garrett (1850–1908), Alexander McSween (1843-1878), and Billy the Kid (1859–1881) along with many others. The film’s story itself was based on a short story written and adapted to the screen by Andrew J. Fenady called Chisum and the Lincoln County Cattle War.
There are great many familiar faces throughout this film but then again it has a very large cast. In a surprise turn Bruce Cabot shows up as Sheriff Brady. They NEVER worked together. We also have Patric Knowles, Christopher George, Andrew Prine (who would also appear with Wayne in an uncredited part in Rooster Cogburn and in a nerd note appear in V the Miniseries and V: The Final Battle), Ben Johnson, Glenn Corbett (the original Zefram Cochrane in Star Trek: TOS), Geoffrey Deuel, Richard Jaeckel, and a whole slew of other names big and small.
This is probably one of the larger casts in a John Wayne film. While John Wayne is the star, he does not spend as much time on screen as he normally does doing something because of so many characters. And to the credit of those involved with this production, most of the character’s storylines get a logical and largely satisfying conclusion even though there are so many. The only story that bothers me is the implied but never really developed love triangle between Pat Garrett (Glenn Corbett), Billy the Kid (Geoffrey Deuel), and Chisum’s niece Sallie (Pamela McMyler) whose only purpose as a character really is to provide that love triangle. Sallie does not do anything more for the story of the film than that and the resolution is Billy the Kid runs off and her and Pat Garrett get together. There is no growth of feeling shown between Sallie and Garrett in contrast to the development that occurs between Billy and Sallie.
Billy the Kid is a better character here than in some other works of fiction. He is not cartoonish or just blindly violent. He has some depth and emotion. His violence is not just for the sake of being violent but rather because that is all he knows really to do.
This is a work of fiction based on historical events and I am always more than a little uneasy about those. Real people put in to fictionalized events just does not sit well with me, but this movie manages to be entertaining and that greatly helps it go down. It also helped that my knowledge of the historical figures portrayed here came from the bastardized reality of Hollywood. I knew none of those were accurate, so I did not expect accuracy here. I must note that you will see shades of Young Guns in the finale. Not that Martin Sheen or Emilio Estevez ride in but rather the climax at the store portrayed here is also portrayed in Young Guns albeit with more accuracy.
Wayne does not have as many entertaining one-liners as I am used to and that is part of the fun of watching his films. He was the template in my opinion for the witty one liner hero. The script is not bad, and the pace of the story is steady. The cinematography is nothing special but that does not harm the film. Too often directors in Westerns get wrapped up in vistas and slow down the story with stunning shots that reinforce what the audience already knows though here the scenery shots can be a bit bland.
The film is mostly a drama interspersed with some very good action. It has a very exciting climax with much of the focus being a fistfight between Chisum and the underhanded Murphy. What stands out to me about it is that John Wayne does not punch the guy into defeat so he can be brought before the law. The battle between Chisum and Murphy is a long drawn out fistfight where they throw each other through doors and windows and Murphy is impaled on a steer horn decoration. WHAT?! That struck me as gory for a John Wayne Western.
Chisum is an enjoyable movie. It is an entertaining western with a larger than normal cast performing a good story. It is not the greatest of Westerns, but it is entertaining. You will enjoy yourself.